The more a fighter talks, the more I tend to worry, and the less I tend to listen. The flimsy nature of words in a sport so visceral as mixed martial arts often serve only to conceal or distract from the issues or, perhaps, problems at large. One's ability to wax pre-fight lyrical has little bearing on how they perform once the first bell tolls and is, instead, sometimes a device used to momentarily deceive impending doom.
Normally, the chatter of Chael Sonnen would alarm me then, especially when so much of it has been directed the way of reigning UFC middleweight champion Anderson 'The Spider' Silva, the pound-for-pound most gifted athlete in the sport. However, in this instance, Sonnen seems to have hit the right tone between pre-fight deception and pre-fight hype. Thanks to Sonnen, and only Sonnen, I care about and am enthused by an Anderson Silva title defense, perhaps for the first time since he defeated Dan Henderson in March 2008. Not only that, his words also make me think -- whisper it quietly -- that Sonnen may have a sniff at victory when the pair meet this Saturday night (August 7).
The 33-year-old Sonnen has played human foghorn since May, issuing any number of threats and taunts the way of Silva. There was no need to goad Silva into a fight, of course, as Sonnen had already captured the coveted shot at the title with tremendous wins over rival contenders Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami. No, Sonnen's decision to rile the Brazilian is born from a natural charisma, a desire to increase the profile of the event and also to distance himself from the steady stream of previous Silva foes. Furthermore, Sonnen has approached the task as though vocalizing the thoughts of many UFC fans, bemused by some of Silva's more recent Octagon outings.
Sonnen, like so many, was provided ample ammunition in April, when Silva sleepwalked to a decision victory over Demian Maia, forgetting both the need to punch or kick as the bout dragged on. By the time the boos of the Abu Dhabi spectators reached a deafening crescendo, it was Maia, not the champion, who was bravely marauding forward chucking left-hands. The 35-year-old Silva, one-time showboater in the fight, no longer smirked or pranked, and was merely content to skip away from a desperate challenger and breathe heavily whenever the final round offered a lull.
Sonnen was to have faced Silva that night in Yas Island, had he not injured himself during victory over Marquardt in February. Brazilian striker Vitor Belfort had withdrawn from his April shot at Silva and, despite having only fought weeks previous, Sonnen was the UFC's first port of call when lining up a replacement. Unable to heal up in time, Sonnen reluctantly passed the torch to Maia.
Having now anticipated his shot since the beginning of the year, Sonnen has had ample time to consider his tactics, of both a physical and mental nature, and explore a portal inside the complex mind of the erratic champion. In choosing to launch an abrasive front, Sonnen has been unrelenting in both his dissection of Silva and his own intent.
As a result, Sonnen had sold the August 7 fight with Silva better than any middleweight title challenger in recent memory. While his words may not have installed any extra apprehension in the loins of Silva, they've helped the fight appear more competitive and more intriguing than it would have certainly been perceived before Sonnen flexed his stand-up chops.
Such is the exaggerated and comical nature of Sonnen's way with words, I've often wondered whether the joke is on us, and that even the challenger doubts the substance of the sermons he's been preaching. After all, the nature of fighting often requires its participants to shatter their sense of reality and live in a fantasy world that enables them to cope with the demands of their profession. That's why you'll never hear a fighter admit to being scared of an opponent, or reveal the truth about the quality of a particular training camp. We're forever told fighters have experienced the best camp and are in the best shape of their career, and are about to do this or that to their trembling foe. It's the fight script, and we learn to accept, nay, expect it from fighters in the lead-up to battle.
Fighters are often pathological liars, out of necessity, and over the years I've learnt not to trust or invest in a word that slips from their mouths. Nonetheless, I haven't been able to stop myself falling for Sonnen and his one-man verbal crusade against Silva. I'm tickled by the punchlines and I'm fascinated by the motives behind them. I want to know why he's so certain of victory and why he question's Silva's legitimacy so much. The challenger has labeled Silva everything from a 'fraud', 'dirtbag', 'liar' and 'thief' to a 'runner', 'clown' and 'the Michael Jackson of MMA', and has done so without so much as a hint of irony or sarcasm.
In addition to the patter, Sonnen's recent performances have also lent credence to the belief that Silva may be facing his toughest test yet as middleweight king. The Oregon-native's decision wins over Marquardt and Okami were as one-sided as they were surprising, and Sonnen's ability to out-wrestle and out-grapple two of the best in the division put the weight-class on red alert. The NCAA Division I All-American wrestler suffocated both men for the duration, allowing his favored foes sparse room to think, let alone breathe or scramble. Not since Dan Henderson has a Silva opponent managed to put the great Brazilian on his back and go to work. If anybody at 185-pounds is capable of achieving such a feat, it would seem Sonnen is best equipped.
Before the Marquardt triumph, Sonnen explained how, "Nate is probably better than me on paper, but fights aren't fought on paper, and I know I'm the better fighter." The declaration seemed hollow and inevitable beforehand but, once Sonnen had carried his plan through to victory, took on an altogether far more compelling and eery feel. He'd beaten Marquardt exactly as he said he would, by being the superior fighter and the tougher man. Very few are as hard-nosed as Sonnen.
More than that, though, Sonnen is stubborn enough to excel where others have recently failed. His dislike of Silva is not a gimmick and, unlike recent challengers, one imagines Sonnen won't be in any rush to bow three times and touch gloves with Silva at every momentary pitstop on Saturday night. Respect hasn't worked for Silva's first eleven UFC opponents, so it will, if nothing else, be interesting to discover how Sonnen's steely mentality plays out against Silva.
Whether sheer toughness and unshakeable belief will be enough to dethrone Silva remains to be seen, of course. Sonnen's anecdotes have amused and inflated the bout to a new level of intrigue, but have also papered over cracks in his own arsenal. Lest we forget, he was submitted by Silva's last challenger, Demian Maia, within a round at UFC 95 last year and, despite his toughness, has been tapped out in seven of his ten professional defeats. Sonnen would argue he's grown as a fighter since those dark days, but Silva, a man well-versed on the ground, has shown no such signs of tangible weakness in his own career.
Had he chosen to, Silva could have made a point of countering Sonnen's taunts by referencing any one of the challenger's ten pro losses. However, 'The Spider' hasn't engaged in all that much talking of late, and only last week managed to enrage reporters on a conference call with a stream of humorless one-word answers, implying it was the fighting, not the talking, that mattered. Sonnen, on a phone miles apart from the champion, was at his quotable best, of course, and offered numerous explanations and reasons as to why he would topple Silva this coming Saturday.
There were few statistics or evidence to back up Sonnen's plans, but bountiful heart, passion and determination, three traits he's always possessed and will unquestionably need on Saturday night. Silent Silva has allowed his next challenger to talk himself in circles, offering nothing in response, presumably safe in the knowledge that no amount of one-liners will win Sonnen the fight. Yet the sheer vigour with which Sonnen has gone for Silva's throat, verbally if not physically, should be commended.
He's increased interest in a silent partner and champion that very few were aching to see during the fifth and final round of his most recent title defence. In fact, following Silva's victory over Maia in Abu Dhabi, UFC President Dana White promised fans that had purchased the pay-per-view a reward, a make-up and something to soothe the post-fight frustration. Up stepped Chael Sonnen. Whether it all leads to victory or defeat, Sonnen has talked and fought himself into the most endearing and, gulp, competitive middleweight title fight in years. On paper, at least.